A Viper In Her Bosom (Short Story)

--1--

OUTREACH ACADEMY, BENEKAL MINING STATION PRIMARY
Patiranestenna of House Ithelianeden
To
MITHEKARIAN CANTON, CURTAIN WALL, CAPITAL
Eriennellastaren of House Mithekarian, Sept Terakellit Ahn

** 86:12:136 **

 

My dear Erienne,

I cannot tell you how desperately glad I was to find your letter waiting for me when the repairs to the communications relay were finally completed. I have spent the whole of the morning poring over your account of the ball, reading and rereading your descriptions of all your suitors and supplicants. It has been over two weeks now, imperial, since the excitement you detailed, and I can’t help but wonder what thrilling intrigues might have occurred in the interim. I can only hope another letter is working its way through the relays toward me, and that you have not waited to hear from me before letting me know the outcome of your rendezvous with the younger Lothelianen Ehr, of which you write with such anticipation in this letter.

Truly, Erienne, I beg you will take pity on me and write more often. Two weeks imperial is nearly equivalent to half a season on this Sower-forsaken rock, and nothing worth noting ever happens here unless you have an interest in mining output or the wellbeing of tuftroot crops. I had thought Father’s last outreach posting was dreadful—you will remember how I spoke of it at school—but this is ten times worse.

However, I am being ungrateful. The academy here, at least, is relatively modern, and the housing is comfortable enough, if not quite what I have become accustomed to while living with Aunt at the Capital. And here, Father is the headmaster, so we both have more control of our time and circumstances than we had at his previous posting. The faculty seem to adore him, as well they should, and if any of them were nearer my age, so that I could converse more easily with them as equals, I should probably be quite content. As it is, though, they generally treat me as they would an inconvenient and recalcitrant child or grandchild, especially when I have the temerity to express an opinion of my own.

The townspeople near my age are, in their own way, almost worse. Having completed the schooling available to them through the academy, they generally possess no desire to further their educations in any appreciable manner. They go happily to work in the mine, or the refinery, or in the fields and shops that support them, with no thought to anything that might be happening beyond their own atmosphere—or even beyond the borders of their own town (though in an outpost settlement like this, there’s little difference between the two). Because of my advanced schooling, and especially because I chose to study music, which, outside an occasional lively festival dance, they regard as a useless extravagance, I am for the most part viewed with suspicious contempt.

But I fear I am back to complaining again already. I shall stop being so gloomy, then, and tell you about the one real friend I have managed to make since coming here. And he is only a friend, Erienne, do not mistake me; I have not your good fortune with admirers. Feleden is a nice enough young man, though a bit sober for my taste, and he does have a little more ambition than most of the townsfolk I have met. However, he is only a deputy constable, and though he may one day rise as high as full constable, or even chief constable, he is not likely ever to be anything more. Still, he listens to me when I speak, which is refreshing in my current circumstances, and he manages to be a pleasant enough dining companion, even if his manners are a bit rustic.

Feleden generally dines with us about twice a week when he is not on watch duty and when we are not entangled with the end of week faculty dinners. He has wheedled Father into allowing him access to the academy archives as well as Father’s personal library of administrative philosophy texts. The two of them sit by the fire after dinner and argue theory and application like old men while I lose myself in whichever instrument suits my fancy, and afterward, Feleden walks in the garden with me and compliments my playing as a good friend ought.

It is not enough forever, Erienne, but it is enough for now, and for the most part I am content with my new place. I could wish for a little adventure and perhaps a suitor or two—or at the very least a nice supplicant—but for the time being, I shall have to depend upon your generosity in sharing your own romances. Please do write when you can and tell me about your Lothelianen Ehr before I perish from curiosity.

Your servant in friendship,

Patiran

 

 

--2--

 

OUTREACH ACADEMY, BENEKAL MINING STATION PRIMARY
Patiranestenna of House Ithelianeden
To
MITHEKARIAN CANTON, CURTAIN WALL, CAPITAL
Eriennellastaren of House Mithekarian, Sept Terakellit Ahn

** 86:12:157 **

 

Erienne, my friend,

When I tell you what has happened, you will easily apprehend how deeply I am repenting the too hasty words of my last letter, in which I lamented my lot in such an uneventful life. I should, perhaps, have been more specific as to the kind of adventure for which I hoped, as it seems the Destroyer must have intercepted my missive as it passed through the relays, and resolved to work mischief in my quiet little corner of the Sower's Garden.

Last night, the sky rained fire.

In the cold light of morning, of course, we have learned that it was only debris from an unfortunate freighter that shifted in on the wrong side of the port orbital, was caught awkwardly in the planet's gravity well, and broke up as it passed into the atmosphere. But last night—oh Erienne, I don't think I can adequately explain how frightening it was.

We had just suffered through yet another morbidly dull dinner in company with the senior members of the faculty and their equally shriveled and stuffy spouses, and had sat down for afters in the arbor room. The wearisome music master was urging my father to insist on my performing for the company—no doubt so she could point out, yet again, the differences in taste and style which she views as deficiencies in my "fancy capital education." I confess that my first reaction when we heard the shouting was one of relief. That feeling did not last long, however, once I found a place at one of the tall windows.

With the academy situated on the crest of a hill as it is, we had a clear view of the gathering disaster. Long fingers of flame stretched across the black of the night sky like the hand of a god reaching to pluck us off the face of the planet. In the town, starlight and streetlights gave way to harsh black shadow and a blood-red glow, as if the buildings had already been reduced to embers speckled with the bright sparks of lighted windows.

Some pieces of the freighter and its cargo must surely have burned to ash in the atmosphere before they ever reached the ground, so the destruction was not, perhaps, as terrible as it might have been, but it was difficult to remember that and count it a blessing when the first fragments of flaming metal began to blast down upon the valley.

The leading edge of the burning hailstorm struck the tuftroot fields on the far side of the town. I did not think, as I watched the ground being ripped into long, smoking furrows, how deeply the settlement’s inhabitants depend on those crops both for food and for income; it seemed too distant to be real, and yet my mind was numbed with the shock of it. Today, however, it has been impressed upon me that fully half of the food crops were lost last night, at least, and winter weather here is such that supply pods find great difficulty in landing. A plea for assistance will be made as soon as may be, but the settlement’s administrative offices have been reduced to rubble, and the governor is dead, so the request will take time. I’m told that it is doubtful an aid shipment can be gathered and sent in time. I do not know what we shall do for food if it is not.

However, it may sadly not be so much of a problem as we fear, depending on how much of the settlement’s population is left alive after the firestorm razed half the town and demolished the entire mining complex. They are down there now amid the rubble, digging both dead bodies and injured souls from the still smoking ruins. I have not lived here long enough to form a large acquaintance in the town, and my friend Feleden is safe—he came to check on us almost as soon as the firestorm was over—so I have not the same distress suffered by most here as they wait to hear the fate of friends and loved ones. But even I dread to know the final outcome of this rescue effort; it cannot be good, I fear. 

The angle of the freighter's impact was such that most of this side of the town was spared, and since the medical facilities were in the mining complex, the school has been made into a makeshift hospital. I regret to admit that I fainted as soon as the first burned and bloody townswoman was brought in, and am now regarded as too fine a lady to be of any use to anyone. Thus, I have been banished to my rooms—ostensibly to keep me safe, but really, I am sure, to keep me out of everybody's way. I don't blame them, as I am sure that even the most impromptu nurse has better things to do than trip over me. I dismissed the servants to help with the relief efforts as soon as I noticed the resentful looks they directed at me, and I only wish I could think of some useful way to occupy myself that would show them all that I could be in some small way a boon rather than a burden. But as I am sure you will attest, Erienne, my education has ill prepared me for this sort of event.

I trust you find yourself better suited to your current situation than I do at present, and I hope you will write soon and distract me with news of more pleasant goings on.

With kind affection,

Patiran

 

 

--3--

 

OUTREACH ACADEMY, BENEKAL MINING STATION PRIMARY
Patiranestenna of House Ithelianeden
To
MITHEKARIAN CANTON, CURTAIN WALL, CAPITAL
Eriennellastaren of House Mithekarian, Sept Terakellit Ahn

** 86:12:176 **

 

Kind Erienne,

I cannot thank you enough for your letter. It is good to know that somewhere in this dark universe life continues as it should—except, of course, that the Lothelianen Ehr is obviously a fool. I had not thought things here could get much worse, but I was wrong.

Most of the town’s survivors are now encamped at the academy. The dormitories were designed with expansion in mind, but they now hold double the intended occupancy. The classrooms have been converted into makeshift housing as well, and the library, amphitheater, and assembly hall are also filled with refugees. The conservatory continues to be used as a makeshift hospital, and one of the side court gardens has been converted into a cemetery. There have been fewer deaths since some of the more basic equipment was salvaged from the ruined medical facilities, but there are still new graves nearly every day; my heart hurts to think how many.

Salvage and clean-up work continue, though the rescue effort has been abandoned, and no one will go out at night. Some of the settlers are still unaccounted for, but if they have not been found by now, they are not likely to be found alive. Even if the nights were not growing ever colder as autumn deepens, there are so many other ways to die. And Erienne—there is something out there.

We think it must have been in the freighter when it crashed, because the settlers say nothing like this has ever happened here before. Also, out in the forest near the mines, a large cargo container was found nearly intact in the wreckage of one of the freighter's cargo bays. Feleden says it was the kind of container used for shipping particularly hazardous materials—the kind with several layers of particle field reinforcement. He says the particle fields probably held during atmospheric entry, protecting whatever was inside, but were damaged in the process and ultimately failed. When they found the container, it had been forced open from the inside, and there were deep gouges in the metal. We don't know what was in it, because the container wasn't listed on the cargo manifest the chief constable received from the port of origin. Feledin suspects a member of the crew was smuggling an exotic animal for the black market trade.

Whatever it is, it’s alive, and it’s out there, and it’s killing people—hunting them in the shadows. It has even gone into some of the smaller wooden huts on the outskirts of the village to take its prey. So far, the stone walls of the academy’s structures have kept it out, though we can sometimes hear its eerie, wailing cry outside in the night, and twice now there have been long gouges scratched into the metal of the outer wall’s front gate.

Last night, the chief constable took some of his more experienced men out to find the thing and kill it. Their communicators went silent a couple of spans after they left, and they didn’t return as planned. This morning, Feleden (who was left behind in command of the other deputy constables) took a search party out to find them. He said there wasn’t much left to find. He has requested assistance from Regional Command, and we hope to have a response very soon.

In the meantime, I shall keep myself busy playing for the hospital patients in the conservatory, so I do not have time to think too much about the monster that lurks out in the darkness. Feleden thought my music might help soothe the injured and dying, and both of the doctors agree that it is helping. It soothes me too, to know that I can in some way be useful in this crisis, even if only in a small way.

Oh Erienne, some days I feel your letters are the only window through which I may peer at life as it should be. Your description of your supplicant’s stunt with the stalakan was most amusing. I hope you gave him a courting knife at the end of the match, but you did not say. Please write again very soon.

In solemn earnest,

Patiran

 

 

--4--

 

OUTREACH ACADEMY, BENEKAL MINING STATION PRIMARY
Patiranestenna of House Ithelianeden
To
MITHEKARIAN CANTON, CURTAIN WALL, CAPITAL
Eriennellastaren of House Mithekarian, Sept Terakellit Ahn

** 86:12:196 **

 

Erienne,

I hardly know how to tell what has happened. I am still shaking now, as I sit at my desk to write you. I shall try to go in order so you will understand, though I am not certain I understand it all myself.

The demon is still out there, and the townspeople fear to go out even in the daylight now, as the creature seems to be lurking in every shadow. I caught a glimpse of it myself once, though only a brief one from a distance just at dusk. It moves so quickly! I cannot say I had more than an impression of terrifying size, a glossy soot brown color, and rather a large number of oddly proportioned limbs.

I told you in my last letter that Feleden had sent to Regional Command for assistance. The response was a squad of twelve men. They were all rather condescending and superior, and their officer took Father’s rooms as his own so he would not have to associate much with the “rabble” living in the academy’s dormitories and public rooms. He made the library his field office, and I fear a number of important books and display artifacts have been damaged.

The unutterable barbarian also demanded a full dinner service every evening, with Father and me in attendance, and would not listen when I told him the servants had better things to do. His table manners were appalling, and he complained about both the quantity and the quality of the food, knowing—knowing—that we must ration what we have if we wish it to last until spring, especially since the last of the crops have not yet been brought in because of the ghastly waking nightmare we’ve been living since the freighter fell. And because Father’s status as headmaster makes me hostess, I was expected to have the wretch as my dining companion.

He had the temerity to insist on my walking in the gardens with him after dinner, even though the nights are becoming decidedly cold. Twice he cornered me among the trellises and tried to extort a kiss. And the way he did it still makes my blood boil! He was not only an unbearably impertinent supplicant, but also displayed a complete lack of anything remotely resembling subtlety. Not at all like—well, but I am getting ahead of myself, and I promised to go in order.

Very well, in order then.

The soldiers tracked the demon beast for three days and determined that it had made itself a den of sorts somewhere in the mine. They spent another two days determining that the monster’s carapace (or perhaps its hide?) is, indeed, impervious to both pulse and ballistic weapons, so snipers are useless. Feleden tried to tell them; after all, those are the sorts of weapons the constables were using when that beast killed them all. But the soldiers wouldn’t listen, and they lost three men learning that lesson for themselves.

One of the scouts insisted that the creature was phase shifting, but his commander assured us this was nonsense. If the beast could shift, he insisted, it could never have been trapped in a cargo container, and it would have already shifted through the stone walls of the academy in search of prey. It does seem to prefer eating people over any of the small creatures that populate the forest around the town.

I shall not try your patience with the details of the squad’s attack on the creature. It suffices to say that my unfortunate supplicant rather foolishly led his remaining men into the mine in search of the creature, and the only one who crawled out, battered and bleeding, was the scout who thinks it phase shifts. Apparently, he had the cowardice (or sense) to run while the thing was busy eating his companions.

Please forgive me, Erienne, if my manner of writing seems to make light of the deaths of these men. I’m sure most of them were brave and honorable, and I have nothing but sympathy for their families. It is only that I have seen so much death since that night when I watched from the arbor room as the sky fell and the ground burned; if I do not laugh a little at death, I think I might die myself.

It took the last soldier a day and a half to recover from his wounds sufficiently to make a report to his superiors. And I am sure you cannot imagine, Erienne, who came this time in response. The Nine Winds. The Winds, Erienne! They arrived yesterday. Of course, there are only three of them, along with a pilot and a technician; apparently, the others are occupied elsewhere. But one of them is the commander—the Viper himself! We saw him once at the Capital, do you remember? It was at the harvest ball two years ago. He danced only with his sister and the Trakanaleth Ahnat, and everyone said they were relieved because they would be afraid to dance with him anyway.

These soldiers are very different from the regionals. They stay in their own quarters on their transport craft—there was just room enough for it to land in the athletic field. And Feleden says they have all but emptied their supply of emergency rations into our storehouse. We will not be eating well, but if we are careful, and if the last of the tuftroot harvest can be brought in, there will be enough to keep us all alive until the weather breaks in the spring and a larger aid shipment arrives. Regional says we must not hope for it before winter sets in.

I can hardly believe I am writing this, but last night the Winds joined Father and me for dinner. (Can you imagine, Erienne!) I dressed as carefully as I could, since the idea of having the Viper as my dining companion rather flustered me. I wore the rose and gold silk gown Aunt commissioned for the commencement banquet. You remember it, I am sure—the one with the beaded bodice.

I cannot begin to tell you how nervous I was when I was presented to him. But he was very kind, and friendly. Feleden looked a bit put out at losing his accustomed place at the table, but really, I could hardly have slighted such important guests merely so Feleden could sit by Father and continue their current debate over personnel distribution and management. As it was, the dinner conversation was rather stilted until the exobiology instructor asked the Viper whether he’d actually observed any venomous serpents on that new planet where he got his name, or if vipers were merely a mythic creature found in the local folklore. (After all, who ever heard of a venomous serpent?)

The Viper said he had indeed seen such creatures himself, and that there were several beautiful varieties. The depiction worked into the back of his armor was certainly beautiful—in a rather terrifying sort of way. But he also told us one of the native folktales that features a viper. Here it is, to the best of my recollection:

 

It happened that a maiden was walking along a high mountain path one day, when she encountered a viper lying atop a rock.

“Oh maiden,” cried the serpent, “take pity on me! It is very cold in these mountains, and there is no food. I do not know whether I shall freeze or starve to death first! Please put me under your coat and take me with you down to the warm and plentiful valley.”

(Be reassured, Erienne, that vipers cannot really speak, even on this planet Earth where they live; this is merely a device employed for the sake of the story.)

“Certainly not!” replied the maiden. “I know your kind. You are a viper. If I picked you up, you would bite me, and since your bite is venomous, I should surely die.”

“No, no!” cried the desperate serpent. “If you help me, you will be my friend, and if you are my friend, I shall treat you differently. I shall love you, and be kind to you above all others. Only think what a good friend you shall have in me!”

The maiden examined the viper more closely, and found herself marveling at the intricate pattern of the serpent’s scales, and the way they gleamed in the cool sunlight. Indeed, she thought he was the most beautiful serpent she had ever seen, though he looked quite miserable. And after all, every living thing deserves to be treated with kindness.

“Very well,” declared the maiden. “I shall save you.” She picked up the viper, and tucked him under her coat against her bosom where he would get warm. The two of them chatted amicably as they descended toward the valley, and the maiden found herself quite pleased with her new traveling companion.

As they entered the lush valley at the foot of the mountain, however, the maiden felt a quick, sharp pain near her heart, and when she opened her coat to look for the cause, she found that the viper had bitten her after all.

“How could you do this to me after I saved you?” she cried! “You promised to be my friend, and I trusted you. Now you have bitten me, and I shall die!”

“But my friend,” said the serpent with a frown, “you knew I was a viper when you picked me up.”

 

It seems the primitives of Earth are both drawn to their vipers and frightened by them, much as we in the empire both admire and fear our own Viper. Truly, Erienne, he is quite attractive seen close up; very tall and well built, with the most striking dark eyes! He is rather too quiet to suit you, I should think, but I must say it was refreshing to speak with someone who is familiar with the Capital and knows enough about music and art to maintain a conversation on those subjects.

I don’t suppose that should have surprised me, considering his lineage—my head must be too filled with Tristarin’s tales of the Viper in the Night. There is something about the way he carries himself that is rather intimidating, but I cannot believe that the pleasant man with whom I dined could have beheaded all those people. And his grooming is far too immaculate to imagine him wearing anybody’s skull as a helmet. 

He came to hear me play after dinner, and was kind enough to turn over the pages of the music for me. Poor Feleden, who usually performs that office when I need it, was forced into conversation with several faculty members who, regrettably, tend to regard the town’s constabulary as an inferior and unpleasant foreign species. I am sure he had a difficult time of it, and I imagine that must be why he declined, rather coldly, I must say, to help me show the Viper around the gardens when the other guests began to leave at the end of the evening.

In private, the Viper is less reserved than when in company, I found. He has a delightfully subtle sense of humor, and told me several amusing stories about his travels to other worlds. Our stroll lasted rather longer than I intended and I am afraid my little maid must have become quite chilled from trailing us around the cold stone pathways for so long. But Erienne, this is the part that makes me tremble most to remember. When he saw me back to my rooms, the Viper asked me when I might next find myself in the Capital, and whether he could call on me again tomorrow. And Erienne, he kissed my palm before he went away.

Do you think—oh I hardly dare to think it myself, and I cannot bring myself to write it. But perhaps this letter will leave you—as your letters so often leave me—wondering what might have happened between its writing and its receipt. (The Viper, Erienne!)

With warmest regards,

Patiran  

 

 

--5--

 

OUTREACH ACADEMY, BENEKAL MINING STATION PRIMARY
Patiranestenna of House Ithelianeden
To
MITHEKARIAN CANTON, CURTAIN WALL, CAPITAL
Eriennellastaren of House Mithekarian, Sept Terakellit Ahn

** 86:12:198 **

 

My dear Erienne,

I ought to scold you for paying the extravagance of expedited service—but I shan’t, since it was so delightful to receive your letter so soon after having sent my last. I cannot imagine what it must be like to have both of the twins as suitors! I confess I thought you would make up your mind between them before things progressed so far.

While I appreciate your heartfelt warnings regarding the Viper, I must assure you that they are entirely unnecessary. He is such a gentleman in everything he does that I can only conclude that the tales we have heard must be exaggerations, if not complete fabrications. And even you must admit that an alliance with his Family would be of benefit to mine.

No, I did not see him again the next day because his work detained him beyond the academy walls late into the night. However, it seems he gathered a bouquet of night-blooming flowers from the fields as he and his men made their way back to the academy, and he left them for me with my maid so that I woke to find my rooms scented with their fragrance. He did the same the next night, also leaving a note saying he’d enjoyed my music and hoped to hear me play again soon. It was rather disconcerting to have such an attention paid to me by such a man.

I did not see him again until dinner this evening—the third since my last letter—when he and his men again joined us for our simple repast. This evening, Feleden managed to elicit an invitation to dine with the senior mathematics instructor, so I found myself situated between him and my own companion—I forget his name, but he is a tall fellow with the build and complexion of the northern archipelagos, and leads the technical support team for the Winds. I decided to take the hostess’s prerogative of cycling through the visitors in order of rank, you see, because I was not certain that I wished to encourage the attentions of the Viper by dining with him again so soon. I saw him watching me, however, from down the table, and it made me terribly self-conscious.

Fortunately, I was not required to exert myself to keep the conversation going, as talk of the demon beast seemed to come with great fluency—and some considerable volume—to everyone present.

It seems our surviving Regional soldier was right after all, since the Winds’ technical officer reports that our demon does, in fact, phase shift. Evidently, the only reason our stone walls keep it out is that the local stone, like the metal of the gate and the lining of the shipping container, happens to contain an unusually high concentration of osmium. Something about density and refraction—or perhaps it was diffraction...or perhaps all three. Honestly, Erienne, after the mathematics and physical sciences instructors had their way with it, the whole discussion was well beyond me. Feleden tried to explain it to me during afters in the arbor room, but I’m afraid I am a lost cause and must settle for being grateful that the walls do, indeed, keep the thing out.

One thing I did understand was that they believe the only way to stop it is for one of the warriors to phase shift in synchrony with the beast and stick a blade in it. Who would have thought that of all the far-fetched claims Tristarin made about the Winds, it would be the personal phase-shifting units that turned out to be true? But it seems the Winds have identified a vulnerable place in the creature’s abdomen, and tomorrow they go hunting.

After dinner...well, I did not feel much like making music, knowing that the Viper and his men might be so close to death. That demon creature has killed so many men already! It was too cold to walk in the gardens, so after a little obligatory socializing in the arbor room, I went to the library to be alone with my thoughts.

I was not alone, however. He was there. The Viper. He sat in Feleden’s accustomed place, reading by the light of the fire on the grate. I didn’t even realize he’d left the company until I saw him there.

As soon as he noticed that I’d come in, he stood, and bowed, and laid the book aside as if to go. “Forgive me for intruding upon your privacy,” he said—as if it were not the other way around. When I stopped him, urging him to forgive my interruption and go back to his book, he hesitated a moment, and then he said rather bluntly that he’d received the impression that I had been avoiding his company. I admitted that perhaps I had been, a little bit. But I’m afraid I also admitted that I found myself regretting having done so, which was only the truth.

You should have seen his smile when I thanked him for the flowers. He has a rather melting sort of smile. And when I tried to change the subject by asking him what he was reading, it turned out to be a volume of poetry he’d found on the side table. He asked if I might sit with him and let him read a few of the poems aloud, so that I might tell him what I thought of them.

They were love poems, Erienne. And he read them with such feeling! After the second, he looked at me with those dark eyes of his, and my heart began to pound so hard I could not sit any longer. I stood and went to the window next to the fireplace; it overlooks the gardens, and the moon was just beginning to rise. I laughed, as soon as I thought I could do so without my voice breaking, and told him my friend had warned me that a man like him probably had a lovesick lady waiting for him on every island of the intergalactic ocean, and that I ought not to take anything he said too seriously. (You did say that, you know, Erienne, in your last letter.)

He closed the book of poetry, and came to stand beside me at the window. He was quiet for what seemed like a long time, but was probably only a handful of heartbeats. When he did speak, he only said softly, “Your friend is mistaken. I am too rarely in one place long enough to court a lady properly.” It could not have been his words that made me feel so breathless, so it must have been the tone in which he said them—such a wistful, aching tone.

I tried to laugh again, but it came out more like a shaky gasp, and my voice trembled when I spoke. “But surely,” I said, “you would not court a lady improperly.” I’m afraid I didn’t quite manage the teasing tone I had intended. I watched him from the corner of my eye as he looked out the window, contemplating his response.

“No,” he said after a moment, shifting his gaze to the book in his hands, “I would not court a lady improperly. But if I found a lady appealing, I might court her rather more quickly than I would otherwise choose to do.” He turned, then, to look at me, and I thought my heart might stop beating altogether. “With the hope,” he went on, “that she might offer me a reason to return to her when the emperor grants me furlough.”

I couldn’t speak. I could barely even breathe. The Viper, Erienne!

After a long moment, he turned back to the window with a sad smile. “But such offerings are rare,” he said softly. “And your friend is mistaken.”

I took a deep breath to steady myself and asked, “What would you do if she did?” He turned to look at me, and his eyes—they seemed to see right into me, Erienne, to my soul, and I had to take another deep breath before I could go on. “Suppose a lady were to offer you a courting knife,” I asked. “What would you do?”

For a long heartbeat he just looked at me—into me. Then he took a slow, gliding step toward me and leaned down. I almost thought he was going to kiss me—but of course that would have been improper since I’d not given him permission. “Why?” he asked softly. “Is that a thing you think likely to happen?”

I couldn’t think at all with him that close. Part of me wanted to kiss him. Ached to kiss him if I tell the truth, Erienne. And perhaps I might have done it, if Feleden had not come in at just that moment.

I wish I could be more like you and think of something clever to say at such a time. But I am myself, and I only blushed dreadfully and moved away from...can I call the Viper my supplicant? It seems so presumptuous, but after such an interlude, what else am I to think?  

In any case, Feleden gave me a long, steady look; then he cleared his throat, eying the Viper with what looked like defiance. Feleden is my friend, Erienne, and he is neither short nor slight, but I will tell you that beside the Viper, Feleden looked rather like a pupil confronted by a stern headmaster. He said he’d come to fetch a book he’d left on the side table earlier when he’d been called away to settle a dispute between a pair of disorderly miners.

The Viper was most courteous when he returned the book, commenting that he had quite enjoyed the poems, and that I seemed to like the ones he’d read to me as well.

When Feleden looked at me again, his face had gone tired and rather sad, and I found that I felt quite worn out myself.

I could feel the Viper’s eyes on me as I made my excuses and left, but I didn’t dare to look at him again. Tomorrow he is going hunting. And then—

What shall I do if he does not come back?

And oh, Erienne, what shall I do if he does?

I wish you were here to advise me dear friend. You would know what I should do. But by the time you receive this letter, tomorrow will have come and gone. And by the time I receive your reply...

Ah well. Until then, I remain your somewhat shaken friend,

Patiran

 

 

--6--

 

OUTREACH ACADEMY, BENEKAL MINING STATION PRIMARY
Patiranestenna of House Ithelianeden
To
MITHEKARIAN CANTON, CURTAIN WALL, CAPITAL
Eriennellastaren of House Mithekarian, Sept Terakellit Ahn

** 86:12:199 **

 

Oh Erienne,

How shall I tell you? After my letter of last night, which you cannot possibly have yet received, you will be expecting an account of a victorious hunt (for you know the Winds’ reputation as well as I) and the ensuing makeshift celebrations of the townspeople. And I am certain you will be wanting to know what sort of folly I have wrought with the Viper.

But well-planted rows invite the whirlwind, as they say here. I shall tell you what has happened, trusting that when you write next to tell me how many kinds of a fool I have been, you will be gentle.

The beast came for us in the moonless darkness a little before dawn.

I will not say it woke me; I had not slept. After I wrote you, I lay in bed imagining every possible way in which my next encounter with the Viper might play out—what I might say, what he might do, whether he might kiss me if I offered him a courting knife. Should I offer it as a luck token before the hunt, or present it upon his return as a reward for his bravery?

Twice I heard the beast’s eerie wail outside and smiled to know that I was safe inside the stone walls and sturdy metal gate. The sounds I heard next I can hardly think how to describe. There were three or four great, booming thuds followed by a long, shrieking moan and a tremendous crashing sound. The silence after the crash seemed almost a living thing that held its breath and then blinked one long, startled blink before the shouting began.

With my heart in my throat, I snatched up my wrap and ran for my balcony. My room is on the second floor and my balcony overlooks the main courtyard. The front gate lay in a twisted heap halfway across the yard, where the demon beast had flung it after tearing it from its hinges. I could barely make out the creature itself, farther back, just inside the gate. Feleden’s watchmen stood in a ragged arc, weapons drawn, backing cautiously as the thing advanced. I have to give them credit for standing their ground.

I could not tell in the darkness which of the figures was Feleden. I leaned out over the balcony railing, straining to see, just as the floodlights burst on, blinding me. When I could see again, the Winds were there and the watchmen were falling back.

It was a beautiful, terrible thing to see, that hunt. The Winds danced. There is no other word for how they moved—flowing and whirling in perfect harmony as if to the rhythm of some unheard music. And the beast danced too, in counterpoint, a dark, misshapen hulk with too many legs and a disturbing number of spiked tentacles that flicked so fast I could barely track their movement.

My breath caught as one of the Winds slipped close to the creature’s body, testing, almost teasing, and one of the thing’s tentacles snapped right through his body—right through him as if he were made of smoke. The man was phase shifting! The light caught his face as he whirled back. It was the Viper, Erienne. And he was laughing.

Another warrior flashed toward the beast from behind. The creature twisted, and this time the demon was smoke, while the warrior’s blade passed harmlessly through its body. A tentacle flicked out impossibly fast, grazing past the warrior’s chest as he turned in the dance, and the spike struck sparks as it gouged a shallow furrow in the paving stones.

It went on like that for...oh, I cannot begin to say how long. The whole of the world and the starry sky above seemed to be held immobile with me as I stood on that balcony and watched. The Viper was mesmerizing. And terrifying. The expression on his face as he danced with his own death was one of joy. Of thrumming ecstasy. And I recognized that look. That feeling.

Sometimes, when I play music that I love and know well, everything else fades away to nothingness and the music becomes a current flowing through me. It feels as if my fingers on the instrument are moving in echo of some cosmic, primordial force that is striking the tones and chords of the music from the eager strings of my immortal soul. It is the most profound elation, the most consuming exultation I have ever known—a communion with the music.

And from my place on the balcony, watching the Viper turn and sway to the rhythms of blood and starlight, I could tell, Erienne, that he finds the same ecstasy in killing things. As the horror of that realization sank through me, the stories I’ve heard about him floated up in my mind like the corpses of drowned men, and they no longer seemed impossible.

It did not surprise me when it was the Viper, and not one of his men, who dared dance close enough to the demon to strike the killing blow. As the creature died, I saw the Viper’s heart music reach its crescendo. He raised his arms to the night sky, jubilant, a dagger in each fist. The demon’s blood glistened on his black armor and made a macabre pattern on his upraised face. And that image of him will be forever etched into my mind.

I cannot believe now, sitting in the full light of day, that I ever wanted to kiss him, Erienne. That I ever let him stand so close to me or sit with me at table. Perhaps it is foolish of me to hold this thing against him when in many ways it would be such an advantageous alliance. After all, like the maiden in his folktale, I knew what he was; I knew what he does. But I do not think I could have understood, without seeing it myself, how deeply death lies at the heart of this man. He is more than a soldier. More than a predator. He communes with death. He is death. And it terrifies me.

He came to see me this morning with the blood cleaned off and his deceptive quiet calm restored. I think he wanted to continue our interrupted discussion about courting knives. But my revulsion must have shown in my face or my demeanor, because he stopped halfway across the room and stiffened. I thought, for a moment, that he might plead his case, but he only said, “Ah. I see.” And then bid me a very mannerly farewell. I do not think I shall ever see him again. At least, I can hope I will not.

So now you know, dear friend. I shall forgive you for being right if you will be kind enough to overlook my momentary lapse of good sense. When you write again be sure to tell me about your adventure in the lily pond. I forgot to ask in my last letter.

With warm regards,

Patiran

 

 

--7--

 

OUTREACH ACADEMY, BENEKAL MINING STATION PRIMARY
Patiranestenna of House Ithelianeden
To
MITHEKARIAN CANTON, CURTAIN WALL, CAPITAL
Eriennellastaren of House Mithekarian, Sept Terakellit Ahn

** 86:12:213 **

 

Oh my dear, generous Friend!

How can I even begin to thank you? The aid shipment from your Family arrived yesterday, and I cannot tell you what a difference it has made. You must have begun arrangements as soon as you received my first letter telling of our troubles. How did you manage to keep such a glorious secret?

The medical supplies are particularly precious, but many tears of gratitude have been shed over blankets, and brushes, and the luxury of owning two shirts and a coat again. You even thought of sweets for the children, you dear thing! Truly, there is no way ever to repay such kindness.

You asked in your letter for a brief report, so I shall tell you. Now that the demon is gone, the townspeople are rebuilding as fast as can be managed. Most of the tuftroot crops are none the worse for sitting a little too long in the ground, and have been carefully packed away in the storage cellars. We may be a little crowded over the winter, but everyone will eat. Benekal Mining Station will endure.

Perhaps you have already heard, since he approved your shipment, that we have a new colonial governor. Feleden wears the title well; it was he who kept us all in good order through the catastrophe, and even without the recommendations of Father and the Winds, no one would dispute his claim on the position. 

And I flatter myself that he wears my courting knife almost more proudly than his title. I am a wretch for not recognizing the nature and depth of his interest in me sooner. It shames me to think how blinded I was by my silly romantic notions of a proper supplicant. A kind and gentle heart should always matter more than rustic table manners. I hope, dear friend, that you shall one day be as fortunate in your suitors as I am at present.

In deepest gratitude, I remain always your friend,

Patiran

 


 

Archive Note

In the twelfth year of the reign of Kieransalanesten of House Kanestelan, Empress Among the Stars, the Viper was involved in a curious incident at a mining colony on Benekal, a remote planet on the outskirts of the Threshan cluster.

The official colonial records covering that time period were misplaced or destroyed during a later relocation of the settlement’s administrative offices. The mission logs of the Nine Winds are, as one would expect, sealed by order of the Throne.

Thus, the preceding collection of letters written by the Honorable Patiranestenna of House Ithelianeden, a resident of the colony at the time of the incident, to her friend, Eriennellastaren of House Mithekarian, Sept Terakellit Ahn, who then resided in the Capital, appears to contain the only available first-hand account.

 

Collected with permission from both correspondents
 by Kimmenestalan of House Trakanaleth,
Historian of the High Archives.